Ignorance is not uncommon nor is it a sin, but it is disconcerting to learn that about 70 per cent of Class VIII students have no idea of the freedom struggle, according to a National Council of Research and Training (NCERT) survey of 6,722 schools in 33 states and Union Territories. It questioned 24,486 teachers and 1.88 lakh students. But ignorance isn’t confined to the freedom struggle. Fewer than 50 per cent of the students can name the country’s major rivers. Even fewer know why oxygen is essential for life. As both aided and government schools are included in the survey, the one question that must puzzle everyone from parents to education ministers is, precisely what are the 24,486 teachers doing with their time? This is what they are paid to do and don’t seem to be doing. It is one thing that students don’t know the connection between General Dyer and the national movement, but that they should not know why we need oxygen or that Parliament and the Supreme Court are independent entities signals a disquieting state of affairs. We are unprepared for the future though the world seems to see India as the new great thing.
The survey looks at children about to enter the most intense phase of their school education. This is where we learn discipline and realise that education is not only hard work but also a lifelong process. It is where we learn how to learn as well. If at this stage we can’t say why the sun is hot, why the Swadeshi movement was born, or that industrial production happens in both the public and the private sector, we’re unlikely to learn anything that matters. All this information is available in NCERT textbooks prescribed for schools but none appears to have percolated into the students’ minds.
It’s an indication of a deeper malaise, a lack of curiosity, a disconnect with notions of quality and a disinclination to engage with the Internet for information. Given this background it is no surprise that Indian graduates are in the main unemployable. It is an irony that policy makers should lay so much stress on knowledge economy but fail to learn that our children remain ignorant of the most basic facts about their own history and geography.